T-Mobile Shakes Up Phone Numbers Just As They Stop Mattering

T-Mobile today announced a limited customer beta of Digits, a new technology which allows customers to use their phone numbers on multiple devices and use multiple phone numbers on a single device. The comments below may be attributed to Jan Dawson, Chief Analyst, Jackdaw Research. Jan may also be reached at jan@jackdawresearch.com or 408 744 6244 for further comment.

T-Mobile is shaking up phone numbers at a time when phone numbers are less relevant than ever. Between VoIP calling services like Skype, over-the-top messaging services like WhatsApp, and built-in carrier-independent calling and messaging apps like FaceTime and iMessage, phone numbers and phone calls are less relevant today than ever before. As such, T-Mobile’s innovation here would have been much more meaningful five or ten years ago than it is today.

There is real innovation here, though – T-Mobile has used industry standard technology like IMS and the HLR function as enablers, but has added its own special sauce to create a new device-independent approach to phone numbers, and that’s impressive. T-Mobile claims that it would take years for competing carriers to replicate this approach, and they’re probably right. As such, this is a unique technology and service that T-Mobile can use as a competitive differentiator, to the extent that it’s appealing to potential customers.

It’s worth noting that by T-Mobile’s own description, this is a limited customer beta, and it shows. For now, the features only work fully on high-end Samsung devices, whereas on all other devices they will feel much the same as any other VoIP or messaging app downloaded from an app store. That may change over time on other Android phones, but it’s going to be very tough to achieve the same sort of integration on an iPhone. That’s going to make iPhone users second-class citizens for the service for the foreseeable future, but it’s also less likely that iPhone customers would be interested, given their access to FaceTime and iMessage, as well as Handoff and other features which make cross-device use easy. Meanwhile, T-Mobile recommends customers using Digits switch off iMessage and use standard carrier messaging to make use of it, which won’t go down well with many iPhone users.

I see the multiple device features mostly as a loyalty play, although T-Mobile will pick up some new customers attracted by the feature too. The multiple line feature sounds appealing for those using business and personal phones, but the phone number is usually only a small part of dual device use. Companies often have email and other confidential data on devices which needs to be secured, and simply offering a second phone line on a single device doesn’t meet any of those needs. As such, this feature will likely only be relevant to those companies with a voice-centric approach to corporate devices, which will limit its appeal to a small subset of the 30 million T-Mobile is touting here.

Beyond all this, there’s the question of pricing, which hasn’t been announced yet, though T-Mobile has made clear that there will be a cost once the beta ends. T-Mobile has said it will be compelling, but for now we have to take their word for that.

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